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Why the American far right is openly admiring the Taliban

As the Taliban seized full control in Afghanistan last month, praise for the brutal group came from a seemingly unlikely sector: the far right.

Encrypted chats and online forums in the U.S. were peppered with far-right extremists’ praise for the Taliban’s victory and their anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ agenda.

Encrypted chats and online forums in the U.S. were peppered with far-right extremists’ praise for the Taliban’s victory and their anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ agenda. Users shared memes promoting the Taliban as the “good guys,” celebrated the group’s willingness to execute dissenters and compared their own struggle against liberal godlessness with the Taliban’s rejection of Western decadence.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until the U.S. invasion after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, their regime, based on an extreme fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran, required women to wear burqas and forbade them from attending school or working outside the home. The group banned television, cinema and music and punished criminals and opponents with executions and amputations.

Today’s Taliban has promised more moderation, saying women can attend school and work outside the home. But their seizure of control in Afghanistan has brought fears of violent reprisals against women and anyone deemed a supporter of the West or a challenge to their authority. Since their recent takeover, public advertisements featuring women’s faces have been painted over or torn down. The group has already banned music, required women to wear a hijab and said women must have a male chaperone for travel.

Now, admiration for the Taliban has spread to a handful of pro-Trump conservatives and to former President Donald Trump himself, who praised the group as “smart” and “good fighters.” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., described the Taliban as “more legitimate” than the Biden administration, while Donald Trump Jr. tweeted support for the Taliban’s critique of big tech censorship.

In many ways, the far right’s admiration of Islamist extremism is nothing new. Far-right extremists have long seen parallels with Islamist terrorists’ ideas about a clash of civilizations and rejection of the liberal West, multiculturalism, feminism and LGBTQ and minority rights. Islamist and white supremacist terrorists express similar apocalyptic visions and parallel desires for a territorial caliphate and a white ethnostate. They deploy the same kinds of violent terrorist strategies — from the swift execution of enemies to the embrace of martyrdom — to accelerate the process toward the end times.

In many ways, the far right’s admiration of Islamist extremism is nothing new.

But the far right’s praise for the Taliban comes at a moment when the far right’s growth has been driven in no small part by vocal opposition to Islam and immigration, especially through fearmongering about the supposed threat of terrorism posed by ordinary Muslims. The far-right English Defense League was established in 2009 in response to an Islamist group’s demonstration. France’s far-right National Front (which changed its name to National Rally in 2018) has relied heavily on anti-Islamist messaging, such as a 2010 election poster showing a burqa-clad woman in front of a map of France and the words “no to Islamism.”

This is true for the violent terrorist end of the spectrum, too. Cycles of far-right and Islamist violence have often been revenge-based responses to attacks from the “other side” in what is known as “reciprocal radicalization,” or cumulative extremism.

Actual efforts to collaborate across far-right and Islamist scenes are thankfully rare. Hardcore white supremacist extremist groups and channels regularly share Islamic State group and Al Qaeda propaganda, including attack manual instructions, bomb-making information and violent ISIS imagery. But historically, Islamist terrorists have been less interested in supporting the efforts of the extreme right, who they tend to view as part of the broader Western enemy.

There are now some indications this is changing. New research tracing online interactions between Salafi-jihadi and white supremacist groups showed that cross-ideological discussions on Telegram channels align around issues like both movements’ shared hatred of Jews. Such alliances are nascent and potentially superficial — but nonetheless concerning.

If there’s one thing we have learned from the past few years of extremist mobilization, it is that strange coalitions are possible in ways that heighten the risk of spontaneous and planned violence. At the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, anti-maskers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and ordinary Trump supporters joined forces with more militant white supremacists and anti-government extremists around a shared goal of preventing the U.S. presidential election vote count from taking place.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., described the Taliban as “more legitimate” than the Biden administration.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen increasingly muddled ideological expressions across the far-right spectrum. There are anti-immigrant groups promoting LGBTQ rights as “Western” values to be protected from a supposed threat of Islamic rule. Recent white supremacist terrorist attacks have been motivated in part by climate change and eco-fascism. There are Satanist neo-Nazi groups that blend occult and white supremacist beliefs.

Such crossover ideologies and odd coalitions are likely to grow in the coming years, fueled by the very nature of online extremist radicalization. Unlike in the past, when extremist content was distributed primarily by groups with relatively clear ideologies and goals, today’s encounters with extremism are less coherent and more patchwork in nature — reflective of the pick-and-choose process of radicalization that happens as individuals encounter bits of extremist ideologies online.

We should expect extremist threats to continue to evolve and morph into new forms in the years to come. Far-right extremists will simultaneously praise the Taliban and promote anti-refugee backlash. They will seek alliances with others — even supposed opponents — who they see as sharing goals around restoring tradition, countering modernity and protecting heritage. They may mobilize around perceived shared enemies, including Jews, feminists and multiculturalism itself.

To outsiders, cross-ideological expressions of support and praise may seem contradictory. But while we can’t fully predict the ways that extremist movements will reinforce and feed off one another in the years to come, we should at least anticipate it.

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